In my head, things are very different from the way many people tend to see things.
When I look at National Service (NS) and the Singapore Armed Forces, I see most crucially that these things exist for reasons that are entirely circular. I see first of all that these entities exist – that is the starting point. Why, how and in what form they exist, all of these substantiations and justifications happen afterwards. The square one, the start-point, first and foremost, is that NS exists. Somebody declared that it existed, because of that decision it assembled around it all the necessary fortifications for its existence, that continue to defend it.
What this means to me is that all the reasons NS exists – for the purposes of instilling nationalism, for the military defence of our nation – all these reasons are accessory. They are not the core of the matter. The core of the matter is that NS must exist, and it is because NS exists that all other reasons are created to embellish its existence.
Recently I heard that an NSF (National Serviceman Full-time) from another unit died of a heat injury during training. The resultant reaction was a safety timeout – across the entire army, all trainings were suspended until the matter could be investigated thoroughly. To me this move was a demonstration of cowardice and mediocrity. It was an excessive knee-jerk reaction, an inefficient blanket solution that was undertaken only insofar as to halt the outbreak of public reaction in its tracks, a way of plunging an entire process into a flash-freeze to prevent the possibility of further complications – such as further incidents and deaths.
I want to put this incident into the context which NS serves. If this were a wartime scenario, such a reaction would have a devastating effect on operations and exercises necessary to continue shoring up the combat-readiness of soldiers. No standing army in the world would put a halt to all trainings because of a single casualty. As harsh as the reality may seem, soldiers are the meat of an army, and losses of lives are as expected. This reaction was incongruent to the operation of a true army.
To put this incident into a broader context of Singapore as a peacetime nation, it may seem necessary to ensure that safety is of the highest priority in a system responsible for the conscription and training of more than ten thousand young men every year. Yet a life was still lost due to the negligence of commanders. One might contend that these commanders have their work cut out for them – that amongst the hundreds of young men they do train professionally and safely, a single mishap is almost impossible to avoid due to human error.
What I conclude from these two separate arguments is this – NS as a structure fails both from the point of view of a combat-ready armed force, as well as from a peacetime conscript force.
This is not the first time an NSF has died due to training negligence. Over the past few years, there were other incidents. One NSF died during an overseas exercise when a vehicle overturned. Another died during training due to exposure to smoke grenades. Each time these incidents occurred, there was some kind of public backlash and reaction about the failures of NS. When you put this latest incident into the long line of things, there are two more observations. First, that the organisation has been given several opportunities to correct its systemic failures, each opportunity coming at a very heavy cost. Second, the organisation has also been given several opportunities to meet and manage the challenge of a public fallout and backlash arising from such an incident. SAF has failed to learn in both respects despite the death toll.
The first observation again highlights the mediocrity of the leaders of the organisation, but also the failures of the system, which was entrenched over successive generations of leaders – some more capable, others less so. So there are two factors in these failures – the system, and its leaders. Again, one could counter that such incidents are the bad apples of the batch, and that even if continued improvement to NS is made over the years, a single casualty – whatever the cause – could overturn all such effort. This argument invalidates the severity of each casualty, the emotional toll that is placed upon the family of the victims. It only helps to contextualise the issue from a systemic, problem-solving point of view.
So What Are They Really Learning To Do?
I want to focus my attention on the second observation, dealing with public relations management. Within the context of Singapore there is a characteristic of this challenge that warrants special attention. Censorship and state power. The unfolding of military casualties within the public sphere is tightly controlled by the state. By “the state” – I refer to the leaders of Singapore’s government and all the machinery which they have access to. These include government ministries, statutory boards, government-linked corporations, and most importantly, the press. This means that our leaders have a lot of power over truth and reality, a degree of power that leaders in a typical country do not enjoy the privilege of holding.
Let us not forget that Singapore’s press is tightly regulated and that is why we are ranked 151st out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom (by Reporters Without Borders). In Singapore the press does not exist as the people’s representative, watching the actions of the state, but rather as a mouthpiece of the state, explaining policies to its people.
To see what this translates to when applied, look for instance at how NSF deaths are always reported with much more sensitivity and caution than the deaths of regular servicemen. Leaders already know that NSF deaths would cause a larger public backlash and indignation. They are trained to detect and intervene with incidents that they already know, based on past experience, would generate stronger public unhappiness.
What this means is that our leaders have a vested interest in manipulating and distorting the unfolding of events in the public eye in such a way that they cause minimal damage to the reputation of the organisation. This is what they are concentrating a significant portion of their resources on, on top of trying (and failing) to prevent unnecessary casualties in the army.
There will, of course, be contention and deflection about this accusation. It does not matter. The point to establish is that the SAF has a vested interest in doing so, and if need be, they may leverage on all the powers of the state to fulfill their interests.
They have a motive, and they have the means. Is there really need for a confession?
Less Than Zero
Now let us quickly return to the first matter, the systemic failures of NS in preventing deaths. In light of the fact that our leaders are slathered with the resources – manpower, capital and freedom – which democratic governments are typically deprived of, these failures hold double the weight. It is true that military deaths are difficult to avoid. Training is meant to simulate real armed combat situations, and so there are many possible hazards.
It is also true that every year the ministry of defence is allocated the largest budget, and that our leaders earn five-figure salaries for operating an army that doesn’t even engage in real combat. The organisations that execute NS are grotesquely bloated with manpower, organised into a confusing and absurdly byzantine bureaucracy. Leaders at the top are given the freedom and power to make decisions with great swiftness and efficiency if necessary – such as the prompt execution of the army safety timeout, which happened in a matter of an eyeblink compared to standard organisational processes that the SAF manages.
A typical military organisation struggles with uncertainty and limitations on its capabilities. Ours is blessed with resources that are only dreamed of, and still fails – spectacularly. What are we really feeding?
So Why Are They Dying
There are at least one to two NSF deaths in the army every year. There are those who are exposed to safety breaches, but there are also those who commit suicide. The number is never clear because Singapore’s military does not report these figures transparently1.
When you have a compulsory conscripted army, there will be individuals who are not willing to serve, who serve against their will.
Such individuals are a waste of resources from a systemic point of view. They do not pull their own weight and cause additional administrative difficulties for others because of their perceived deficiencies as soldiers. They face stigma, name-calling and differential treatment. They may be given informal punishments or have their privileges revoked by their superiors. Their peers may ostracise them or refuse to cooperate with them.
This organisational culture has a role to play in many of the issues we see among servicemen. It is what prompts soldiers to stomach injuries and risks – because they would rather not face humiliation and stigma. It is the cause for a mental health issues and symptoms among young, seemingly healthy conscripts, when they cannot cope with a system that fails to recognise their limits as people.
Let’s Be Real
Most of the incompetence and mediocrity of Singapore’s military is easy to ignore or suppress. Simply by declaring that information is a threat to security grants the organisation the right to halt its spread. Other discontents are filtered through a lengthy and hierarchical command system and allows superiors at each point to deflect and distort them in order to present a rosier picture than reality provides. In the meanwhile propaganda and dick-swinging continues in the mainstream media to buffer this image.
And so on, so forth. The chain amplifies upwards until the ones near the top are surrounded by yes-men, living in an echo chamber of their own.
When realities manifest themselves in a way that is difficult to deny or refute, all the ugliness and incompetence of Singapore’s military surfaces. It is unfortunate that the deaths of individuals are required in order for such problems to be confronted, only to fail to be solved. The cycle repeats itself endlessly.
Discussions of truth and reality are purposeless with state authorities. If they find particular subjects to be an inconvenience to their duties, they would simply ignore them if they can, and allow them to fade away. They have no obligation to uphold these complaints, and are not systemically incentivised to do so.
The point is not that our government is not truthful. The point is that truth as a principle is essentially worthless to the varied functions of the state. What they desire is results, numbers, ways to show that they are improving, advancing. Truths help them to find these, in making sure that their numbers are rigorous, consistent. But beyond that they serve no purpose and are quickly discarded. If truths are inconvenient, if they show that institutions are lacking, they are discarded.
This may still work with most government agencies. Unfortunately, with Singapore’s military there are no results and numbers to show. Singapore has never been at war since the day it achieved independence.
A Circular Army
So we have in Singapore a military that plays by no rules but its own.
Leaders throw increasingly extreme measures in order to deal with the issue of safety amongst servicemen, even enshrining it as one of the military’s core values. Yet it continues to accumulate unnecessary deaths, casualties, injuries and suicides that are then reported opaquely within the public sphere.
Our top officers are exhorted as elites who are parachuted into key corporations and government organisations, yet military commanders are insulated against job insecurity and well compensated for operating an army that has never actually seen war.
We claim that NS instills pride and loyalty in the country, but do not conscript half of the nation because of their gender. Malays are barred from intelligence-based appointments because of fears about their links to neighbouring countries.
We claim that the military protects the sovereignty of Singapore but are helpless when another country confiscates and withholds our tanks. The militarisation of our country still intimidates our Southeast Asian neighbours and yet we claim it is for the purposes of self-defence.
Our army is so insecure about its place in the world that its apologists voice vehemently, loudly, that it is relevant. At every parade, at every ceremony, its extravagance, its showiness, is a testament to this. It continues to suppress, to punish its detractors and critics, in any way that it can.
Every reason, every principle for the continued existence of the army, seems incongruent with our perceptions of what reality should be, of what it is. And yet the SAF does not fail. It persists, it continues to exist. It receives funding, manpower, public support.
The core of the matter is this – someone once declared that NS would exist. That was the only real decision. Ever since then, every principle, every development, every display gathered around NS as a concept serves only to justify that NS must exist. At the core of the matter, NS exists because it must exist. NS must exist because it has always existed, and it will always continue to exist.
And so on and so forth. Every dead brother should help us see this circular reasoning with greater clarity.
1 – Editor’s note – Near miss are not reported in public, near misses that do not result in hospitalization or medical attention are not reported upwards and suicides outside of army camp are not considered death on active duty. This was established in the case of Private (Pte) Ganesh Pillay Magindren.